Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2015. 61 pages. $15.00.
The word that comes to my mind as I re-read Matthew Minicucci’s debut collection is temper, as both noun and verb: temper as in one’s state of mind, or as in the state of hardness and elasticity of metal; to temper as in to reheat and then cool a metal so as to strengthen it, or to temper as in to serve as a counterbalancing force to some other force. These poems reveal a mind moving in and out of tempers, a mind constantly working over memories, passions, histories, and material objects so as to meet their force with his own. Minicucci’s words put fire under their subject matter (a small boy’s primal rage, a grown man’s unrelenting grief) and leave these things tempered, as sword and shield—new objects that do not mitigate pain by alchemizing it into poetry, but are themselves tools capable of striking or defending. The poems in Translation do not seek to neutralize sadness or destructive impulses by virtue of turning them into poetry; rather, they accept the inevitable return of what we would cast out from ourselves and translate this detritus into something not necessarily new or better but different—tempered.
The first poem in the collection, “Epithet,” is characteristic of the book’s attention to craft as well as its thematic concerns and narrative devices, invoking ancient history and myth to make sense of the poet’s own personal history of loss. Here we see Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, in a fit of anger over the killing of his companion Patroclus by Hector. Achilles destroys everything around him (“the tent was the first to go”) and “throw[s] what’s left into the sea” (1). It is telling that this introductory poem concerns retribution—specifically retribution that is devoid of glory and whose underlying driving force is perhaps too deep to grasp. Speaking to Achilles, the poem claims “Your mother loves only the sea. / Your mother is subordinate to the sea. / But isn’t everything?” (1). It is this deeper primordial wound—the fact that we are no one’s sole beloved, that we are all subordinate to powers beyond us, that Achilles is ultimately alone as all of us are—to which Achilles responds with anger; Patroclus’s death perhaps only serves to awaken this old trauma. Achilles’s name, after all, is derived in part from the Greek word for “grief”—and it is grief, not glory, that is the true subject of his story. “[E]verything we’ve ruined / comes back to us,” the poem tells us; there is no letting go, no way to finally destroy that which we hold responsible for our grief, even when we translate that grief into action or art (1).
We see this move against a redemptive power in poetry even more clearly when Minicucci brings the material world of the present into his work. In his meditations on animals and in a series of poems set along Route 24 through Colorado, Minicucci finds again and again evidence of certain creatures’ ability to, as he puts it in “Passeri,” “figure it out”—that is, to simply live in this world of contingency and immanence (6). In a prose poem called “Squid,” Minicucci writes a beautiful and haunting opening few sentences: “Suckers and sheathed hooks make such music. In this brief calm, I wonder how the rain escapes its own electrocution” (12). And then we are led down even further beneath the waves: “Let me tell you,” he says, “about void; its dark mouth and scrimshaw teeth” (12). Everything in the poem—the animal, the man, the sea, the air—is dangerous, and we cannot escape this simple fact, no matter the music we make from it, no matter what we might jettison from the boat in an effort to make ourselves lighter: “What I expel hurls me to a deeper place, where this skin reflects nothing of the laughing angler’s lantern” (12).
Refusing a redemptive mode does not make these poems nihilistic. Rather, they call upon the reader to step forward and face up to what cannot be redeemed, to attempt, as the Passeri, to figure out a way to be in the world without disavowing our own faults, our own invariably flawed constitutions, and our own mortality. In “Homily (1)—Pueblo, CO,” which is set at a wedding ceremony, Minicucci writes: “Aurelius once said each person has but one life—and yours is almost finished. But you must understand, he meant this in the kindest possible way” (27). He implores us here, with the wisdom and sensitivity of someone who has spent a good deal of time with the texts he quotes (Minicucci has a degree in classics), to appreciate the gentleness of Aurelius’s seemingly harsh words. To guide us to this more complex meaning, the poem takes us to the mundane image of an overflowing water fountain reservoir, which “no one has thought to empty” (27). The act of emptying out, of making room, is the only way to “save” the water that is lost. In this light, Aurelius’s words are not merely a reminder of one’s mortality, but also, perhaps, a call to act ethically from the knowledge that “Each thing becomes another thing”—even if acting is a kind of passivity, a self-negation, or at least a stepping aside (27).
Translation ends with a poem called “What we’re talking about here” that brings us back to Aurelius and his son Commodus, the megalomaniacal Roman emperor who claimed to be a reincarnation of Hercules and who was fond of performing brutal acts in the gladiator arena. In this poem, the author reminds us that his words always gesture back toward the actual, that there are acts that no art can redeem, and that, finally, to seek this function in art is perhaps to miss the point of it entirely. “Roman history,” he quips, “is a series of formal dinners” where “the dishwasher is an actual person” (59). We then turn to the obscenity of Commodus’s “desire to bind men / to poles and chew their testicles off” (59). What we’re talking about here, Minicucci tells us, is human history in its deaestheticized bluntness, where “the part of the hero” which Commodus “refuses to play” is always merely “a part,” an actor’s role (59). The book, in its final act of translation, deconstructs a narrative of Western history led by heroes. Finally, the speaker of Translation also relinquishes the role of gentle teacher. Here now is a speaker who has grown weary of rehearsing for us impotent acts of aggression bent at retribution, as we saw in the tale of Achilles. No longer does this voice give quiet counsel to us through the lessons of the great mythic past; instead, it roars against the belief in the roles those myths lay out for us—a belief that is itself a source of pain. Quoting Commodus who is “clad in lion skin,” Translation ends by confronting us with the terrible wisdom of the madman: “I tire of pretending. I will show you even your skin is costume” (60).